The changing face of renewables

Energy UK, the country’s largest energy lobbying group and representative of the big six energy providers has shifted its stance on energy production and has announced that it will start promoting green energy and low-carbon energy generation.

Lawrence Slade Energy UK’s chief executive stated the shift was required in order not to be left behind; “No one wants to be running the next Nokia, I want to drive change and move away from accepted (old-style) thinking.”

This announcement has been heralded as a major turnaround by environmental campaigners as previously the organisation has been accused of protecting the vested interests of the supply companies at the expense of the environment.

Energy UK now find themselves in uncharted territory as they officially support the government’s phasing out of coal-fired power stations whilst at the same time being publicly critical over the way the subsidies to wind and solar power were cut by the government.

They admit that the energy companies, along with the government, have made mistakes in the past but now want to create a plan that everyone, including consumers, will commit to.

“It would be quite a sensible thing to have an Energiewende (the German government’s strategy to move to a majority of renewable energy sources) but the emphasis would have to be on our own version and not a direct cut and paste,” he stated.

Energy UK is also calling for a new long term strategy regarding financing the energy sector with details on the levy control framework of subsidy levels published so investors can plan up to at least 2025. Also they are lobbying for onshore wind farms to be allowed access to new types of subsidy claiming that last year’s cuts have undermined investor confidence.

“Energy policy is not as yet coherent. It is becoming clearer but more needs to be done. Investment is there but not forthcoming because there is not black and white clarity. The abruptness of some of the cuts and the scale of some of the cuts have alarmed people.”

Catherine Mitchell, professor of energy policy at the University of Exeter and a campaigner for low-carbon energy generations welcomed the apparent U-turn by Slade’s organisation.

“Energy UK is the conventional industry lobby, and is generally at the conservative end of arguments. This [Pathways] report reads almost as if they have ‘flipped’ to the other side. I take this to mean that their members realise that their future is in the ‘new’ energy system rather than the ‘old’, and this is to be welcomed.”

Richard Black, the director of the non-profit Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, also viewed Energy UK’s new stance as positive. “The report shows that experts across the industry see a time of tremendous change ahead for the electricity system, with the traditional utility model increasingly outdated.

“Falling demand, increasingly competitive renewables, storage, interconnectors, demand response – this is the blueprint for the electricity system just 15 years hence, and it’s telling that it comes from an industry body rather than a ‘green’ thinktank.”

One such component of our new energy strategy could be advanced hydro-pumped storage, but only if the government can guarantee a floor price for energy produced this way.

Scottish Power recently announced plans to double the potential output of its hydro-electric power station in order to help store renewable energy.

A feasibility study carried out on the Cruachan instillation showed its generating capacity could be increased by 400 – 600MW. Its current output capacity is 440MW. However with development costs of £400m the study also claims that without a guaranteed price on energy produced the expansion would not be feasible. The study also claimed that the upgrade would create 800 construction jobs.

The power station is located within Ben Cruachan and during low electricity demand periods, particularly at night, it uses low cost renewable energy to pump water 400m from Loch Awe up to a dam at the top of the mountain with the reservoir acting as a battery. The water is then sent down through a series of turbines during periods of high demand generating electricity.

Scottish Power’s generation director Hugh Finlay said “A new generation of pumped storage hydro would be a major asset for electricity systems worldwide as more renewable electricity continues to come online.

“As well as being able to further support peak demand, expanded pumped storage would also be able to effectively store greater levels of electricity at times when renewable energy output is high but demand is low.

“Pumped storage hydro is the most cost-effective and well-developed large-scale electricity storage technology in existence. We will now take forward our Cruachan findings with Government and regulators.”

WWF Scotland director Lang Banks welcomed the expansion plans saying: “Along with efforts to reduce electricity demand and strengthen interconnectors, increasing our hydro-pumped storage capacity would go a long way to helping deliver a fossil-fuel free power system.

“That is why the UK and Scottish governments need to work with industry to incentivise investment in pumped storage.”

As renewable energy generation levels continue to rise new storage options must be explored and utilised. We have renewable sources in this country that are the envy of the world yet without reliable storage options the vast majority of it will go to waste.

Hydro-pumped storage is one such technology which could provide a tangible solution to this issue however as noted above, the cost of developing such an installation is at this point, not commercially viable.

Therefore if the government are serious about reducing our carbon emissions then a long term strategy to make this technology viable will go a long way in helping them achieve this goal. Not that they should they commit to this alone, there are a number of potential solutions that could be viable but with hydro-pumped storage being the most cost-effective and well-developed it is where their focus should be at present.

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